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iPad Pro's potential becomes clear with this $99 HyperDrive USB-C hub

Exclusive: Sanho's six-port HyperDrive USB-C Hub shows that Apple made the right choice when it ditched the Lightning port.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

With a chunk of electronics fitted to the side of my iPad Pro, I have glimpsed the future of computing.

I've been putting Sanho's HyperDrive USB-C Hub for the 2018 iPad Pro through its paces, trying this six-port dock that plugs into the USB-C port in Apple's newest iPad Pro models.

And it works. The $99 dongle transformed my iPad Pro suddenly into something a lot more like a traditional laptop. We won't know for months or years how closely together Apple plans to bring Macs and iPads, but the USB-C hub moves the convergence ahead by about a year.

It takes as much advantage of the USB-C port as Apple allows, letting you plug in 3.5mm audio devices, HDMI monitors and TVs, regular and micro SD memory cards, your charger and other USB-C devices, and accessories like Ethernet adapters that use the old-style rectangular USB-A connector that's been a fixture on laptops for decades.

Sanho HyperDrive USB-C Hub for iPad Pro

The Sanho HyperDrive USB-C Hub attaches to an iPad Pro's USB-C port.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's not for everybody -- and the market already is limited by the steep price of a $799 11-inch iPad Pro or $999 12.9-inch model, not to mention Apple's $179 or $199 Keyboard Folio Case that the tablet productivity crowd also likely will want. But if you want to get as much as you can out of your iPad Pro, Sanho put its hub on sale Monday at Kickstarter.

Sanho has a good track record on Kickstarter, funding 15 projects and raising $7 million. The Silicon Valley company set a $100,000 goal for its iPad Pro USB-C hub. Early-bird funders can get the hub for $49, and those shipments should begin in January.

Making the iPad more like a traditional PC

There's been years of discussion about how well tablets can replace ordinary Mac or Windows laptops. There's no doubt they're becoming gradually more capable, and Apple has encouraged the trend for its higher-end iPad Pro models by advertising its computing abilities, selling external keyboards and, most recently, replacing Apple's proprietary and limited Lightning connector with the vastly more flexible USB-C port.

But with only one port on the side of the iPad Pro, you've got to pick your choices carefully. Want to import photos from your camera? Disconnect the external monitor first. Want to edit your podcast audio wearing your nice headphones? Better charge up your iPad first, because there's no way to plug in a power cable at the same time.

Sanho's accessory is compact for the job it does -- roughly 1 inch wide, 4 inches long and the thickness of the tablet, with refined manufacturing -- but it puts a big lump on the the iPad's otherwise sleek design. And of course if you plug a bunch of cables and cards in, your tablet will look really ungainly.

But our wireless-everything future hasn't arrived yet, so that's the price you pay for now to let the iPad flex its muscles more.

The hub, available in silver or space gray to match the iPad Pro colors, comes with a removable bracket that helps hold it steady against the side of the iPad in case you have a bunch of cables weighing it down. That's particularly useful for bulky HDMI cables that plug in along the top. The bracket can be removed so you can plug the hub into a Mac or other USB-C equipped computer, too, or if you have an iPad case that gets in the way. There's no trouble using the hub with the Apple external keyboard.

Audio and power at the same time

The hub's top feature is letting people use nice headphones or speakers connected with the 3.5mm jack while keeping the iPad plugged into power, Sanho Chief Executive Daniel Chin said. "With our dock, you can listen to your music and charge your iPad Pro at the same. You can't do that with any of Apple's adapters," he said.

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Other possibilities: connecting both MIDI musical instruments over USB-A and headphones over 3.5mm audio; copying photos from a memory card while looking at photos on an external monitor; and using a full-size external keyboard and monitor like an ordinary laptop user. All of course while connected to power.

I'm in the digital photography camp, and one reason I bought the iPad Pro was for travel. The Sanho dock could help here. When I get back to my hotel or car, I'd like to be able to charge the iPad as I handle the photos. If I'm adding video editing into the mix, the 3.5mm audio jack could be handy, too. (I wish I could import photos from an SD card directly to Lightroom instead of having to use Apple's Photos app as a middleman, but that's not Sanho's fault.)

Success -- but with caveats

I tried a variety of devices: my TV over HDMI, an SD card with photos, my Ethernet cable connected with a USB-C dongle, some nice earbuds with a 3.5mm audio connector. Mostly things were fine.

I have some caveats, though. My Ethernet cable was flaky unless I plugged its dongle first into the hub and then plugged the hub into the iPad. And I could only get full HD resolution at 1,920x1,080 pixels, not the 3,840x2,160 my 4K TV offers. Finally, I don't see much point in using a full-size external keyboard since you'll likely want your hands near the iPad touch screen given that the iPad can't handle mice.

Sanho HyperDrive USB-C Hub for iPad Pro

It ain't pretty, but it works.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For the Ethernet problem, Chin warns that connecting dongles to other dongles is a problem-prone proposition. And although Apple supports 4K and even 5K displays connected to the iPad, it recommends its own cable -- the more expensive $39 Thunderbolt 3 cable, not the feebler USB-C cable Apple ships with the iPad Pro.

USB-C utility

The bigger picture here is that the HyperDrive hub shows off what's possible with USB-C.

Even though some operations were possible with Apple's Lightning port, multipurpose docks weren't an option. And the HyperDrive hub will fit into other devices -- like a MacBook laptop -- with a USB-C port. Expanding  up beyond the Apple-certified world of Lightning accessories poses some compatibility problems, but I expect the benefits of having a broader ecosystem of devices will outweigh them. Just being able to use the same laptop charger and battery packs on an iPad Pro, Mac, and Android phone is very useful.

I'm hoping iOS will gradually unlock other USB-C abilities. Storage would be nice, so I could plug in external hard drives or flash-memory thumb drives, but I've mostly moved to wireless file transfer with cloud services like Dropbox. The bigger shortcoming in my eyes is the inability to use a mouse or trackpad. Also on my wish list is support for USB security keys from companies like Yubico to help us fix the shortcomings of passwords.

Apple is the gatekeeper here. If it chooses to let USB-C and the iPad Pro meet their full potential, the HyperDrive dock only will become more useful.

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